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Filling empty chairs with cutouts of historical figures makes social distancing a learning tool. (Photo: Joe Welch)
Filling empty chairs with cutouts of historical figures makes social distancing a learning tool. (Photo: Joe Welch)
 By Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA - Producer, Contact
November 16, 2020

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- This is American Education Week and even with the disruptions of a national health crisis, educators say there is plenty to celebrate.

School closures, remote learning and fears of spreading the coronavirus have presented teachers, parents and students with a unique set of challenges this year.

Joe Welch, an eighth-grade American History teacher and Pennsylvania's Teacher of the Year, said American Education Week is an opportunity to recognize that, despite those difficulties, teachers across the Commonwealth are finding new ways to make education work.

"We still have really great things happening in our schools," Welch stressed. "We're getting creative, we're thinking outside the box, and we're really thinking about how we can still connect with students and still provide them with a great education."

He emphasized the pandemic should make tackling the unequal resources available to school districts in Pennsylvania a top priority.

Welch noted the innovative approaches teachers are using this year include collaborating with a local public television station to produce educational videos, and "virtual instruction days" with teachers conducting live classes from historical sites.

"We travelled to Washington, DC to teach live from the national memorials there," Welch explained. "When we were learning about the French and Indian Wars, we taught direct from Fort Necessity National Battlefield in Fayette County, Pennsylvania."

He added in the classroom he's used wooden cutouts of historical figures at the empty desks required by social distancing to spark conversations about their impact on history.

It is difficult to know just how the disruptions of the pandemic will affect educational outcomes, but Welch observed there are signs the innovative techniques teachers have developed are working.

"If I have a class of 25 students and I see all 25 there early, on-time in a virtual format, I think that's evidence that they're engaged, that I am making a difference and my colleagues are making a difference," Welch concluded.

A schedule of events during American Education Week is available online at

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